Purnululu National Park
As the first light of day approaches the stars fade and the sky begins the first phase of its morning colour spectrum. In the east the black gives way to a deep purple which pales to mauve then the colour passes through the northern sky to the west where it eventually fades to pale blue. Black humped silhouettes lighten gradually revealing bands of deep red and black shortly before the sun makes its appearance. When the first rays hit, the domes flash bright orange and, by the time the sky has brightened to a brilliant blue, the domes are banded orange and black with clumps of pale yellow spinifex emerging from cracks in the rocks. The palette varies, sometimes the early colour will cycle through red, oranges and yellows in the east and pinks and blues in the west but this time we are being treated to a purple Purnululu.
We arrived in Purnululu National Park yesterday afternoon and one of the joys of travelling with a passionate photographer, or should that be obsessive photographer, is crawling from my warm bed shortly after 4.00am to make the drive from the campground to the chosen morning site in time to arrive 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise. I don’t join Paul on every early morning photo shoot but although rising in the dark and cold can be challenging, the reward of watching the show is well worth the effort.
The site for this morning’s sunrise is the carpark at Piccaninny in the southern section of the national park. A number of walks start here and once the sun has risen we are heading straight to Cathedral Gorge, the most visited spot in the park. We want to reach it before the sunlight creates difficult lighting contrasts and also before it becomes busy with other tourists. It is a 1 km walk in and, as expected, we have it to ourselves for quite a while before others arrive.
After enjoying the walk between the banded domes and along the small side creek with its deep, water-gouged holes and honeycombed rocks we reach the amphitheatre. In the silence I absorb the spiritual energies of this special place with its soaring, curved rock vaulting over the rock lined pool. This place engenders the same sense of calm and peace that I have felt in some churches and in other magical places in nature.
It’s a difficult place to capture in photographs though. Trying to find a position to show the size is hard enough then add the strong contrasts between the shadowed interior and the bright colours outside and it is all too easy to end up with a washed out image which doesn’t carry the feel and the look of the place as we experience it. We easily spend more than 1 ½ hours inside the gorge and people have started drifting in, taking a look and continuing on well before we are ready to leave. Tour groups have started their daily round and one small group includes a lady who belongs to a choir and treats us to the sound of her soaring voice reverberating around the rocks as she sings ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Hallelujah’.
We finish off our morning exercise continuing our walk out into Piccaninny Creek. The wide creek bed is scored with long ridges of grey rock interspersed with collections of tumbled pebbles and small smooth rocks and the creek sides are lined with the towering domes so uniquely characteristic of the Bungle Bungles. It extends many kilometres into the range and a multi-day trek can be done by the very fit and well prepared hiker. For now we just venture a short way along the creek then along a side track to the Piccaninny Creek Lookout where we look down on a view of the white creek bed crossing a plain to another range of domes and hills. We’ll return to this area another day to venture further down the creek but after the early start it is time to return to camp for breakfast.
We’re camped at the southern camp ground, Walardi, while we explore and photograph the attractions at this end. Our site is on the edge of the dry bed of the Bellburn River under the shade of some beautiful white gums and with a view through the trees of a red range of hills. We are so happy with the site we decide to extend our stay and work on our photos and writing. We also need some time to rest from travelling. Paul is out before dawn for several more shooting sessions from different vantage points at this end of the national park but I’m happy to skip some and go with him another morning when we are at the other end of the park. While he is out I laze in bed, at least until 6.00am by which time the sun is shining and I have already had half an hour listening to the chorus of the birds.
On a day off from more energetic activities I take a leisurely stroll along the 1km walking track which winds along the Bellburn River and returns through the camping areas. I’ve been sitting in the shade while I’ve been working on my computer so it is lovely to have the sun on my back as I walk. The information signs along the way provide a good excuse to pause and study the features they describe as do the spectacular views along the way. A bench seat is positioned where the track has a good view of the range, perfect for sunset.
Our next walk is the ten kilometre hike into Whipsnake Gorge. Even though we’ve visited the park and this walk previously we never tire of the views. They always enchant and delight us and we appreciate just how lucky we are to have the time, resources and fitness to do what we are doing. We’re not particularly early today and other walkers pass as we stop yet again along the way to try to capture some of the magical atmosphere in photographs. It could be the curves of the rocks in the creek bed eroded by water and wind, or the colours and shapes of the domes against the brilliant blue sky, or a clump of spinifex or a gnarled tree growing from cracks in the rocks which capture our attention and every few steps the view changes.
When we eventually make it to the end of the gorge we take a break and chat with a couple who passed us along the way and are now enjoying their time in the shade and quiet. Our return walk is slightly faster but not by much. By the time we make it back to camp for lunch it is mid-afternoon and I’m famished. We decide that another day here before we move to the other end of the park is needed. It’s just as well we don’t travel to a schedule.
When we are ready to move on we drive to, Kurrajong, the northern camp ground, pick a site and then travel in the two vehicles to take the Escarpment Walk. It is 3.6 kilometre walk between the Echidna and Bloodwood carparks and with the two vehicles we will be able to walk one-way. It is an easy walk along flat ground and very enjoyable in this weather with the temperature in the mid-twenties. The path is along the base of the 200 metre high western side of the 360 million year old Bungle Bungle Range. As well as the fabulous views of the sheer walls we have a great range of trees, bushes, grasses and flowers to admire and birds to spot and, in some cases, identify.
We have a pleasant site in this camp ground. We don’t have quite as much shade but it is sufficient so we can be comfortable working during the afternoons and we can also collect more solar energy. By the time we have had another late lunch, set up camp and Paul’s work area and organised the evening meal preparations it is time to head out for the sunset photo shoot. A walking track in the camp leads to an elevated lookout with great views of the escarpment but from previous visits we know we will get an even better view from a higher spot by driving the short distance south to the Kungkalanayi Lookout.
A short walk up a hill offers some wonderful panoramic views. To the east of us the 200 metre high escarpment stretches more than 20 kilometres, to the north and south we see rounded hills covered in round clumps of spinifex, and dotted with eucalypts and to the west yet another range is silhouetted by the sun as it drops below the horizon. In between the ranges the plains are banded with the colours of blue-green and grey-green trees, yellow spinifex, red earth and red grasses and sometimes the drifting dust clouds raised by late moving vehicles. As the sun sets behind the range in the west the escarpment glows and the colours of the plains deepen. Soon after sunset, when most other people have left, we enjoy the evening spectrum in the big sky and watch the colours across the land deepen.
Our walk for the next day is the 4.4 kilometre walk into Homestead Valley. We delay our departure until mid-afternoon so we can stay in there until the sun sets. The track heads across the plain to the base of the escarpment then deep into the range along a rock strewn creek bed. The final short section of the track takes us to an elevated clear area where we are surrounded by towering rock faces. For the next 90 minutes we are both busy with cameras on tripods capturing, or trying to capture, the images as the moon rises, colours change and the sun sets casting its final glow through the opening of the gorge to the west. The return walk through the opening is made in the last of the daylight and then by the light of the almost full moon.
For our final full day in the park we are visiting our favourite spot in the park, Echidna Chasm. While I thoroughly enjoy seeing the banded domes of the southern section, absorbing the atmosphere in Cathedral Gorge and walking up the ever-changing Piccaninny Creek, it is here you can really feel that you are deep in the heart and essence of the range. This narrow tall chasm is ancient and peaceful. The amazing shapes and colours and the sheer mass and scale of the place are part of what makes it so magical.
Most people visit Echidna Chasm near the middle of the day to coincide with the sunlight entering the deep gorge but we leave camp at 6.00am so we can miss the crowds and capture some images without as much contrast in the light. Our plan is to spend a couple of hours here this morning then return tomorrow in the middle of the day on our way out of the park. A short side track from the carpark brings us to Osmand Lookout. A low rise puts us above the surrounding vegetation with views of the neighbouring Osmand Range and the valley running between it and the Bungle Bungle Range.
The track into the chasm starts with 700 metres of careful walking along the rocky bed of Echidna Creek to the entrance to the gorge. Tall dark green palm trees line the entrance and contrast with the bright orange vertical wall behind them.
Inside the gorge the track continues for another kilometre between 200 metre high walls. Much of the time the walls are less than a metre apart although there is a wider chamber in the middle. The section after the chamber includes some large boulders to be squeezed past and a couple of short sets of steps to be climbed before the gash in the range finishes abruptly with a view of the sky and a leaning palm tree directly overhead.
This place is even more difficult to photograph than Cathedral Gorge but I enjoy trying. We shift vantage points a number of times, setting up cameras on tripods and dismantling and packing everything in between so they can be carried safely. Before we know it the trickle of other visitors has built and the midday crowd is appearing. We’ve managed to spend the entire morning in here. We finish our morning seeing the beautiful colours as the sun crawls down the walls and reflects off the rocks and around bends. Guess we don’t need to come back tomorrow after all.
Paul has been reviewing and working with his photos while we’ve been here and has decided he’d like to return to Kungkalanayi Lookout with a different lens so he can create a panorama image of the range. I skip this visit and stick around camp and watch the sun set while I’m preparing our evening meal.
We want to leave the camp ground mid-afternoon as we saw a couple of places on our drive in from the highway that we’d like to see again in the late afternoon. This gives us time in the morning to make a slower start and for Paul to work on his panorama and me to work on my writing before we pack up.
We leave at 2.30 just as we planned and of course we should have known better than to have a plan. We’ve been through the first water crossing and as I’m slowing for the second water crossing my main brakes fail. I’m almost stopped and the car has a secondary emergency brake which pulls me up so there’s no real problem. A check under the bonnet and under the car shows the brake fluid has gone and as fast as we pour more in it comes out at the left back wheel. I’m able to drive OK so long as I travel slowly enough to stop by using the gears and I only need to use the secondary, very weak, braking system for the final stop from a crawl. It will also be best if I can minimise how much driving I need to do in the dark, especially on these winding and changeable road surfaces. There goes our plan for watching the sun set from a lookout spot we had picked out on our drive in.
We do stop for some photos a couple of times but only briefly. Nature decides to be contrary and as we drive we are treated to an absolutely beautiful sunset which flares the rocks in the east to a deep red and lights the western sky with glorious pinks and yellows. If only Paul had got these colours on his shoot last night or we had been able to stop where we planned. Oh well, just got to take things as they come, there will be more beautiful sunsets for us to share and photograph in the future.